Moral systems, including codes of research ethics, are essential for making human societies harmonious. While universal morals guard against murder and promote honesty, ethical norms in research keep subjects and animals safe and assign credit for work fairly. Not only are research ethics norms essential because they promote the goals of the Scientific Method, but they are also important in order for a researcher to get funding and public support.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Fred Cate, Vice President for Research at Indiana University. His office handles everything related to research compliance: research grants, proposals, and more. It helps research groups plan their budgets and obtain access to expensive equipment, and also works through issues of research misconduct (such as possible fabrication or plagiarism). I spoke with him to find out more about undergraduates’ place in research ethics, and how ethical issues at IU are dealt with.
Since undergraduates are undertaking research for the first time in their lives, it is important that they establish a strong basis for research ethics. In particular, it is absolutely critical that they learn which considerations are most important to take while designing their experiments, and how to evaluate their proposal to prioritize efficient and ethically sound techniques.
When I asked Cate how undergraduate and graduate students are treated differently in his office, he simply replied that they aren’t—undergraduates and graduates are held to similarly high standards. Both usually come in with faculty members, and even when they don’t, Cate’s team usually prioritizes undergraduate work because they know it is often for a class and that there is a tight timeline.
Ethical issues in research are enforced through what Cate believes to be a “culture of ethical research,” not just the compliance rules themselves. Students who conduct research do so with an intent to publish what they have done, even if it involves dangerous biological materials, radioactive materials, humans or animals. They are learning skills and habits that they will use for the rest of their lives, so it’s important that they are surrounded by people doing responsible research.
Of the people who do not work in university labs, perhaps some of them will not be familiar with the rules they need to comply with, but they still have to do ethical research in order to have a chance at successfully publishing their work. Without doing responsible research, people just aren’t able to go as far with their work. As Cate puts it, there is “nothing more soul-crushing” than when a paper ready to publish in Nature gets rejected because it did not meet ethical guidelines.
Some may wonder why we need to adhere so strictly to ethics standards, and the answer is that the guidelines are already the minimum necessary to get the level of ethical protection that’s appropriate. These guidelines, and this culture of research ethics, are there to protect people (whether it is from plagiarism or from toxic substances) and animals.
While researchers should be taught by their mentors to follow ethics guidelines, they should also be careful and not count on their faculty members to catch every mistake they might make, because failing to meet ethics standards could be fatal to their careers. They could lose their funding, get their paper rejected when trying to publish, or in extreme cases, even be put in jail. And in the eyes of the law, undergraduates must face the same consequences as graduate students or even developed researchers, should they fail to abide by the rules.
To determine whether an experiment does indeed handle ethical issues sufficiently, proposals for experiments are always first meant to be run through the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which reviews them on a case-to-case basis. Just like how the law does not give slack to undergraduate students, the judgment of the IRB is unaffected by what position the researcher is in, or how experienced they are.
Everybody is supposed to present their experiment proposals to the IRB, but it is practically impossible to dodge the IRB once grants are involved, since it is required to review every experiment that uses federal money.
The IRB evaluates proposed experiments in a variety of areas, one of which is the use of deception. The IRB will determine whether deception (if used) in an experiment is acceptable and necessary. Cate reported that this decision always depends on a variety of factors, including how important the experiment is, and whether there are any alternatives. If the experiment’s end goal is to cure cancer, and the deception is absolutely essential for the experiment’s scientific soundness, then it might pass the IRB review. If it’s about making cosmetic devices, however, or if the deception isn’t central to the validity of the experiment, then it might not pass the IRB review.
As for how to regard past research using unethical deception, we must look at whether the experiment was considered ethical in that time period, how significant it was, and whether it clearly violates even the most basic ethical standards. And like for present issues, the most impactful experiments will be given some more leeway, such as those regarding cancer. However, if it isn’t as serious of a past experiment it is generally discarded, since citing unethical research has a negative impact on our research culture.
For undergraduates, Cate recommends considering whether the research project they’re proposing has scientific merit and if it’s worthwhile. In a potentially unethical experiment, he suggests they think of ways to achieve their goals using computer models instead. In a rapidly changing world, many experiments which would have previously required dangerous or deceptive methods now can be done with computer models. Cate believes that as the time goes by, more and more alternatives for human research will arise.
To help undergraduates develop proper research skills, faculty mentorship is also critical. Faculty actions are critical to the “culture of ethical research” that Cate mentioned—at the end of the day, the student will remember what their mentor says, and emulate how their mentors think. Students shouldn’t be required to take any ethics classes, but rather ethics should be incorporated in all the classes they take, and it should certainly play a heavy role in their labs.
Like driving a car, research is supposed to be fun and exhilarating—but just as people need to take the necessary safety precautions in driving, they need to make the proper ethical considerations as they conduct research. As undergraduates at IU develop their own ethical intuitions through faculty mentorship, they too will contribute to the research culture that keeps our society vibrant and safe.